The Silence Before Bach

2007, Movie, NR, 102 mins


The title of experimental Spanish director Pere Portabella's challenging visual essay alludes to a 1988 book of poems by Swedish writer Lars Gustaffsen, a fact that raises more questions than it answers. Part documentary about the life of Baroque composer J.S. Bach (1685–1750), part meditation on Bach's music and part critique of the dehumanized modern world, it's a slippery formal exercise of the kind that divides viewers into the enthralled and the infuriated.

Portabella weaves together recreations of key moments from Bach's life with footage of contemporary individuals who have some connection to his legacy -- including tour guide Franz Schuchart, who gives Bach-related tours in period costume, and musician George Christoph Biller, who holds the position Bach himself once held -- music director of St. Thomas' Church in Leipzig, Germany – and a fictional story in which a long-haul trucker who relaxes by playing the bassoon in roadside motel rooms delivers a piano to a cellist (Georgina Cardona) who may be one of the composer's descendents. But the film's meaning is in the digressions and details, the way Portabella pairs shots of Bach (Christian Brembeck) at the keyboard with the delicately crossed ankles of a horse executing classical dressage movements. The image of a player piano "waltzing" through an empty room as it tinkles "The Goldberg Variations" and later diving into the Danube. Elegant pieces of sheet music, with their graceful visual language of inky notes arranged on neatly rigid staffs juxtaposed with a player-piano roll that renders the delicate ebb and flow of Bach's melodies by way of a binary system of perforated dots and dashes. A specialty book seller muses that Europe before the composer's "Partita in A minor" must have been a place of "empty spaces with no resonance," which is exactly the way Portabello depicts Europe today – a monotonous landscape of anonymous motorways, grey rivers and utilitarian architecture. The beauty of symmetry and order is inextricably linked with sterility and mechanization.

Portabella has no interest in conventional biography -- it's hard not to suspect that he included the tale of Felix Mendelsson (Daniel Ligorio) discovering the score for the "St. Matthew Passion" wrapping a meat delivery precisely because it's probably apocryphal -- or marshalling experts to carefully explain the history and significance of Bach's work for the layman. It helps to come armed with prior knowledge, and even more to accept that the film is deliberately elusive, allusive and slyly provocative. (In Spanish, Catalan and German, with Engish subtitles.) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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The Silence Before Bach
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